Venezuelans in South Florida gather to watch, await developments in Caracas

Anticipation and hope slowly gave way to quiet resignation on Tuesday for tens of thousands of Venezuelan expatriates living in Miami after early news of a potential power shift in their home country transformed into an increasingly violent power struggle with an uncertain end.

In the restaurants and coffee shops that make up South Florida’s public square for exile politics, Venezuelans had gathered since daybreak to follow the news back home together. By late afternoon, many had tempered their hopes with the reality unfolding before them.

In Miami, including The Roads neighborhood, and the nearby suburb of Doral, north to the city of Weston in Broward County, news spread rapidly that factions of the Venezuelan military were supporting interim President Juan Guaidó and his effort to oust Nicolás Maduro, whose leadership has precipitated an exodus from the South American country.

But as the news coverage continued, the prospect of a bloody, drawn-out fight for control of the country came into focus. TV cameras captured troops loyal to Maduro using armored cars to run over protesters in the streets of Caracas as Maduro summoned his supporters to the streets to stop what his regime is calling a U.S.-backed coup attempt.

The mood in an outdoor seating area at El Arepazo Original, a Venezuelan restaurant in Doral, turned somber.

Filomena Davalillo said she was feeling “a little dismayed.”

“I’m hoping there’s no more violence and that everything can be resolved peacefully,” she said.

It was a moment of worry in what had already been an up-and-down day of intense emotions since Davalillo started watching the news at 6 a.m.

“There have been moments of joy and others of anguish,” she said.

As the afternoon wore on, Venezuelans gathered at El Arepazo settled in for what was shaping up to be a long day.

Venezuelan exiles in Miami closely follow news coming out of Venezuela through media outlets including television channels and social media at El Arepazo restaurant in Doral. Parts of Venezuela’s capital were seized by clashes and chaos Tuesday, April 30, 2019, as interim President Juan Guaidó said factions of the military were supporting his high stakes push to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. Pedro Portal

A line of people waited for arepas, including the lunch special: the Arepa Guaidó, named for the interim president, which came filled with ham and shredded beef.

The crowd spilled out of the restaurant and into the gas station in front, which had become a parking lot. As more and more Venezuelans arrived, people began parking in a lane of traffic on Northwest 102nd Avenue.

Hiram Rodriguez was sitting in a chair outside the restaurant, watching the news on a TV screen in the corner. He’d been there since 8 a.m. “And I’ll stay here all night if I have to,” he said.

Rosangela Colli and Yuri Ouchi were standing near a gas pump. They were sending information to their family members in Venezuela, who had lost their internet connection Tuesday and depended on their relatives in the U.S. to keep them informed.

The couple had arrived at 10 a.m. and planned to stay at the restaurant as long as possible.

“If we have to stay all day, we’ll stay all day,” Colli said.

“We’ve waited 20 years for this moment,” Ouchi added.

Earlier Tuesday, the mood at El Arepazo had been more optimistic as Venezuelans draped in their country’s flag watched the potentially historic change.

They waved the country’s yellow, blue and red flag; they sang songs; they released pent-up emotions that have grown stronger with time.

Wilfredo Castillo, 25, arrived at the restaurant early with his mother, Ana, and brother Enrique to follow the news with their fellow Venezuelans. They had learned about the gathering on social media, and the news was cathartic.

“Anguish, anxiety, happiness, a lot of conflicting emotions,” Castillo said, describing the range of feelings he’d experienced Tuesday morning.

Castillo’s mother was more optimistic.

“We have a lot of faith that it’s going to be accomplished today,” she said, referring to the change of leadership in Venezuela the family has long awaited.

The family arrived in Doral three months ago and said they hope to return to their country if Maduro is ousted.

But there was no certainty that the hope-for change would come to Venezuela on Tuesday as Maduro loyalists began to regain control of Caracas, sometimes with brutal force.

Luis Piña was sitting with his mother, Ida Gutierrez. One of Piña’s cousins had joined the protests in their home city of Barquisimeto in northwestern Venezuela, and they were keeping in close contact with family members there.

“Since there are weapons there, we’re afraid that the people protesting could be injured or killed,” Piña said. He hoped Tuesday’s events would inspire more soldiers to join the opposition, he added, “and that we can finish this without too many deaths.”

Venezuelan exiles in Miami anxiously follow news coming out of Venezuela through media outlets including television channels and social media at El Arepazo restaurant in Doral. Parts of Venezuela’s capital were seized by clashes and chaos Tuesday, April 30, 2019, as interim President Juan Guaidó said factions of the military were supporting his high stakes push to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. Pedro Portal

José Antonio Colina, a former Venezuelan military official and the president of Veppex, an advocacy group in South Florida that represents politically persecuted Venezuelans, called Tuesday’s demonstrations “an important step.”

“Now,” he said, “we hope that this inspires a strong public response. The support of the people is needed.”

Otherwise, Colina said, Venezuela could be facing a clash between pro- and anti-Maduro military forces.

Across Miami, Venezuelans anxiously glued to their TVs and smartphones said they hoped for a peaceful transition of power.

“I pray that this is the end, and that we don’t see too much violence,” said Gabriela Castillo, an attorney and vice president at Mercury Public Affairs.

“I have my flag ready to celebrate the end of a horrible time that made us lose the country we love,” she said.

For all the hope and anticipation inspired by Tuesday’s events, though, no one could say when Venezuelans living in exile in Miami would see the return of their beloved country.

The question was on everyone’s mind at Elite Press Dry Cleaners in Doral, where co-owner Rosa Viller said half of the morning’s 20 customers walked in with the same question: “Is today the day?”

The business’ television was tuned to Spanish-language network Telemundo, with the volume on low. Every 10 or 15 minutes, Viller said she scanned Twitter on her phone to check the latest news from her homeland.

“I’m trying to do my work, but everybody is asking what’s happening,” said Viller, who came to South Florida from Venezuela seven years ago.

People had awakened to the unexpected release of a video by Guaidó early Tuesday that he said was recorded at the main air force base in Caracas. Surrounded by heavily armed military forces and joined by Leopoldo López, a past presidential candidate in Venezuela who had been under house arrest since 2014, Guaidó said the time had come to peacefully force Maduro out of office under “Operation Liberty.”

López’s release signaled a shift in loyalties from members of the country’s military, said one Venezuelan analyst.

“There has been a definite turn in the armed forces,” said Helena Poleo, an expatriate and commentator on Venezuelan affairs. “This is a moment Venezuelans everywhere have been waiting for.”

For Ramón Rodríguez, a former Venezuelan mayor living in exile, watching the news unfold from El Arepazo in Doral was bittersweet.

“I would like to be present in my country, I would like to be doing what I’ve been doing for more than half my life,” he said.

That is, fighting for the end of the Maduro regime.

Rodríguez was the mayor of Bejuma, a town near Venezuela’s Caribbean coast, between 2013 and 2017. He said he received death threats and fled to Miami in 2018 after his term finished. Some of his colleagues weren’t as lucky, he said, and were killed or imprisoned.

“Today we’re living the results of a strategy, of a fight that has taken many years and in which we have had a lot of disadvantages,” he added. “We don’t have weapons, but we have a strong desire for democracy.”

Underlying the collective aspirations, though, were feelings of empathetic pain and loss. Venezuelans have remade their lives in Miami with a vision of a more prosperous future but with an eye on the homes and lives they left behind.

Igmar Mendoza used to have friends and family in Venezuela, but they’ve all left the country or been killed, she said. Most recently, one of her friends was gunned down by robbers trying to steal groceries amid widespread food shortages.

“We’re in the final phase of 20 years in which they’ve taken everything from us, including our happiness,” she said.

Mendoza left Venezuela for Miami 20 years ago, but said she has continued to follow the news in her home country closely.

“My blood is my blood,” she explained.

Adanisa Almeida, who has lived in Miami for 11 years, said she was keeping in close touch with her sisters in Caracas all morning. Her relatives told her that they’d lost their internet connection and their phone line at home, but they were still able to send messages from their cellphones. They’d gone out into the streets to protest.

“There’s a lot of expectation and a little bit of fear,” in Caracas, Almeida said.

By late Tuesday morning, there was barely room to stand in El Arepazo. The crowd broke into chants of “Guaidó” and “Libertad” as scenes from the protests in Venezuela played on TV screens in the background.

Franklin Virgüez, a Venezuelan actor, wore his country’s flag wrapped around his neck like a scarf. He said he’d been awake since 1 a.m. following the news and at El Arepazo since 7 a.m.

“I’ve gotten to the point of crying, to the point of yelling, to the point of laughing,” he said, describing the roller coaster of emotions. The end of the Maduro regime, he added, felt like fate to him on Tuesday.

“It’s today or never,” he said.

Never may be too long. But Tuesday was not the day for the changes that many Venezuelans in Miami have waited to see.

Irma Lugo prays the Rosary during a service at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Doral, Florida, on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Those gathered prayed the Rosary for peace and freedom in Venezuela. MATIAS J. OCNER

As the sun began to set, about 100 people gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Doral to pray the Rosary for peace and freedom in Venezuela. Some carried flags or wore scarves and shirts bearing the colors of the flag. A few clutched rosaries knit with yellow, blue and red yarn.

Daniela Párraga, 32, said she was praying for her family and friends who took to the streets in Maracaibo and were met with tear gas from police. She said her faith has given her hope that Guaidó’s call for an uprising is not in vain, a hope that has waxed and waned over several years.

“We’ve lost and recovered hope so many times,” Párraga said. “I have faith we will get through this.”

Miami Herald staff writers Nicholas Nehamas, Taylor Dolven and Jim Wyss contributed to this report.